I sometimes forget that since this is my blog I can write whatever I like. For a long time now I’ve wanted to try to put into words why food forms such a central part of my life – and not just because we need it to survive or because I have a history of lack of control when it comes to putting nice-tasting stuff in my mouth.
The last few weeks (or is it months now?) has thrown that love of food into stark relief and it’s become obvious that I really am not in the minority when it comes to how key food is to us emotionally and mentally as well as physically. So when better than to finally get on and write that long-overdue ode to something that is so important to us all. So here we go…
I’m not sure when it was that I first fell for you. Perhaps it was the excitement of an occasional chicken tikka masala takeaway as a child, or a weekly visit to the fish and chip shop. It could have been cake-baking with mum and experiencing the joy of seeing rock cakes emerge from the oven, warm and just itching to be eaten.
I think perhaps our relationship was a grower. I might not remember that first moment, but I remember the later ones vividly. Long afternoons cooking Indian meals from scratch with mum and dad and their friends, preparing onions, garlic, ginger, piles of spices carefully measured out, rice soaking in the background.
My first taste of a rare steak with my friend’s family – the same family responsible who took me to France and introduced me to oysters, mussels, bouillabaisse and fresh croissants collected from the bakers in the morning.
I remember saving up to take a boyfriend to Simpsons for a birthday – as much a treat for me as him – and instead of planning my future with him, thinking of all the beautiful adventures you and I could have together and so much I had to discover about you.
You’ve taken your toll on me in the past. I’ve always struggled to resist you, even when I should. From whipping up buttercream as a kid while my parents were out so they wouldn’t realise exactly where I was getting my sugar and fat-laden kicks from to raiding friends’ tuck boxes at school for their homemade cakes and chocolate, our relationship has always been love-hate. I’ve devoured you with a gluttony that does you a disservice as well as me, devoid of respect or real joy, more some kind of dangerous obsession.
But in the many years of our relationship, I think we’ve moved past that. You still fascinate me and entice me, but there’s room for others now. It feels a long time since those clandestine ‘buttercream’ moments where it was just you and me, and your place in my life is now about others as much as it is about just us.
Nowhere has that been clearer than now. For the past few years, your place in my life has been about restaurants, about adventures, about trying new wonderful meals, perusing menus, planning trips and exploring all the different cuisines you offer in an endless quest for new experiences, new flavours, new tastes, and new knowledge.
Of course, that wasn’t just you and me. So many of my fond memories with loved ones involve you. From festivals with friends where we ogle chunks of meat, expertly cooked and served up in myriad ways, to romantic meals with Jamie at places we once dreamed we would never be able to go. But amid all the excitement and endless moving, planning, digesting and debriefing I think I missed what really makes you, and our relationship, special.
You see, when this lockdown put paid to those long, lazy lunches or restaurant dinners, I thought it might be over between us. I thought the joy you could bring had been taken away, and might never come back. Instead, you’ve been there for me more than I could possibly imagine.
Part of that has been just between you and me. I’ve cooked more than ever, and somehow you have helped me find a new patience and confidence that I never thought I’d have.
After years of seeking gratification in the result, I’ve finally discovered the fulfilment that comes in the preparation too. The comfort-eating of my teens has gone, but now you’re brightening my day in a much more nourishing way – physically and mentally. You bring me calm, joy and satisfaction in a way that’s about far more than a full belly.
That’s just the start, and the best part is that the rest is about others. Some of the memories I will cherish the most from this period is sharing you with Jamie – from the breakfasts he’s dished up for me while I stare at a computer screen wondering if everything we built is about to slip away, or dinners I’ve cooked for him to show him that I want to sustain him in the same way he sustains me, to experiments with the smoker, much-anticipated takeaways, and concoctions we’ve come up with together amid too much wine and lots of time.
I’ve sent you to people I care about to brighten up their day. Brownies for my mum on her 70th birthday spent alone. Sweets for my pregnant friend when she was feeling low. When our neighbours were struck down by Covid-19 all we could do was cook for them and shop for them, but that in and of itself became huge.
The weekly shop for an elderly couple down the road seemed so insignificant, yet each week our emails get longer and more frequent. It’s because of you that we are even talking, and the insight you give feels like a bond that nothing else could really create.
You’re also at the heart of everything I miss about ‘normality’. Not in the way I thought you would be – after all, you’re still in my life in abundance so I’m hardly going to go hungry. But I miss breaking bread with friends. I miss the raucous laughter over a dinner table, the intense chats, the meeting of eyes across a table when you simultaneously taste something amazing.
I miss the conviviality you elicit, your ability to bring people from all walks of life together in something that’s so basic yet so complex at the same time. I feel almost as if I wasted so much of our time seeing you as merely some kind of sensual pleasure when you are, in fact, so much more to me and to everyone around me. You bring us together, you show us how much we mean to each other, and you are the constant that runs through everything we do like a vein.
I suppose what I wanted to say is that I finally get it. You’re about more than menus, flavours, ingredients and locations. You’re more than a well-assembled plate in an instagram shot, or a ‘taste-bud challenging’ creation. You’re more base than that, more visceral.
I used to think it was just about you and me but it’s not. It’s about community. From our tiny communities at home, to friends, family, neighbours and utter strangers. That’s why I’m not alone in turning to you right now.
You’re the glue that binds me to other people, and those people to others. You’re how we show we care, you’re what we turn to where there aren’t any words and stuff just doesn’t make sense. You’re celebration and commiseration, success, failure, hope and heartbreak all rolled up in one.
I see that now. And I’ll never take you for granted again.